There’s been a significant seachange this year at Adelaide Writers week. For the first time in memory, the Australian writers squarely held their own against the international guests in terms of attendances and sales. Its been the topic of a lot of buzz. A tide has definitely turned. It was if there and then, the era of the superstar novelist jetting in to grant a few hours to eager disciples, had simply evaporated.
Once upon a time, we flocked to Adelaide to sit at the feet of Rushdie and McEwan. I’m not saying we would not do so now, but the mood is different and the reverence bestowed on the internationals, conferring on them the rank of literary royalty, has vanished. We may not be a republic in any other part of life yet, but we we were at Writers Week. There was not a knight in sight.
With just one day to go, the biggest seller to beat so far is Kate Llewellyn with a Fig at the Gate. Predictable perhaps, as the audience here is older, and traditionally this is a city of keen gardeners with a strong awareness of Kate, who used to be a local.
She was followed close behind by Robert Dessaix, who drew a huge hour long and devoted signing queue for What Days are For and was tickled that not all of the crowd was the usual suspects . ‘ I got two young men with tattoos’ he told me proudly.
He even beat Julia Gillard at the bookstall, though she drew by far the largest crowd of approximately 2400 fans while refusing to be drawn into commenting on current politics and any feelings of deja vu. Later in the week David Marr gave a great talk about the question of character in political biography, and made provocative predictions about potential future leaders: Bishop, Turnbull, Bowen were all mentioned.
I saw little during the week apart from the handful of sessions I chaired. Helen Castor held a crowd spellbound talking about her biography of Joan of Arc, explaining why Joan does not appear for the first 85 pages. We talked in detail about why she wore men’s clothing, one of the most fascinating aspects of her story. Her command of her subject was never less than authoritative. No wonder Hilary Mantel, no less, is a fan.
Tim Low was as shy as a rare bird at the start of our conversation about Where Song Began; at one moment I thought he might fly away, distracted by having his four year old grandson in the front row. But his feathers eventually settled and while he would not oblige when I asked for a few birdcalls, (‘my teeth are too crooked’ was his excuse) he was a captivating speaker about why our birds are such loud shriekers. He also urged us all to rethink the practice of putting out bird seed.
Dan Barber was battling severe jet lag until he drank some tea made for him by an Indigenous chef which put him out cold until 20 minutes before our session; revved up with coffee, his speech accelerated from slow eloquence to warp speed New Yorker on his urgently appealing topic of sustainable eating. The Third Plate is a truly fascinating odyssey, a quest for flavour and responsible , enlightened farming practice. Though he has iconic status as a high profile chef, Barber is not interested in celebrity, except when he can use his fame as a tool to educate his diners. After you’ve read his book ,you may think differently about what a meal is. And you’ll want to go and eat at his restaurant farm at Stone Barns in Massachussetts, where his manifesto determines the menu. This is not about fetish ingredients,which he argues the current paddock-to-plate movement encourages, it is about a much more holistic awareness of agriculture as the source of authentic and truly nutritious food. He was an inspiring evangelist, moderate rather than extreme, which made his arguments all the more persuasive.
On a lighter note, Hannie Rayson, author of Hello Beautiful, had audiences rolling with laughter in recognition of their own dinner party angst as she read from her memoir Hello Beautiful. She certainly knows how to write and deliver a punchline and how to gently mock middle class sensibility. I can’t wait to talk to her for Booktopia at the end of March.
Under the shade of the tent canopies and trees of the Women’s Pioneer Garden, Michel Fabre, author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Strange New Things wore his grief at the recent loss of his wife on his sleeve. In a gesture of heart pinching poignancy he had packed a pair of her shoes for his journey here, together with some of her final artworks in the last stages of terminal cancer. No one who heard him speak of his agony of loss could remain unaffected. ‘ The moment we have memory, we have loss’ he said of one of life’s most bittersweet paradoxes.
Faber was perhaps the most unsettling figure at the festival, but by no means the only one to talk about death. It hovered over many sessions, like the fascinatingly candid conversation between doctors Kooshyar Karimi, author of Leila’s Secret and Terence Holt, author of the marvelous case history collection Internal Medicine.
We may not be able to avoid dying, but the audiences in Adelaide seemed to suggest that reading is one of the greatest ways to experience the complex spectrum of being alive.
Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.